Before Paul Walker and Fast and the Furious: 5 Stars Who Died Mid-Film Project

How filmmakers and studios handle losing their stars

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Nicky Loh / Reuters

U.S. actor Paul Walker smiles during the premiere of the movie Fast and Furious 4 in Taipei April 15, 2009

In the wake of Paul Walker’s untimely death in a car wreck on Nov. 30 at the age of 40, questions quickly began to circulate about the fate of The Fast and Furious franchise that made Walker famous. The action star was on brief hiatus from filming the series’ seventh installment when the accident occurred. The film, originally slated for release on July 11, could still go ahead, though studio executives at Universal are still trying  to determine how to continue.

Judging from Hollywood’s past examples, there are several key factors to consider once a film has lost its star mid-project. Here are five other notable actors who passed away during the shooting of a film, and how various studios and filmmakers handled the loss.

Marilyn Monroe, Something’s Got to Give
At the time of her death at age 36, Marilyn Monroe had just been rehired as the female lead of the comedy Something’s Got To Give. Also starring Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse, the movie’s shoot was rocky from the start with Monroe frequently missing work and delaying filming. In June 1962,  Monroe was fired from the project, which brought shooting to a halt, only to be rehired after Martin refused to work with any other actress. However, before the shoot could resume, Monroe was found dead in her L.A. home on Aug. 5, 1962, from an apparent overdose. Something’s Got To Give was ultimately shelved though a portion of the footage later appeared in the 2001 documentary, Marilyn: The Final Days

Natalie Wood, Brainstorm
While taking a production break from shooting the sci-fi flick Brainstorm in November of 1981, star Natalie Wood tragically drowned after falling overboard while on a boat trip. (Also onboard at the time of her death was her husband, Robert Wagner, and her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken.) Though the majority of Wood’s scenes had already been completed at the time of her death, production was temporarily stalled by MGM studios. After director Douglas Trumbull partially rewrote the script and re-shot some of Wood’s scenes using a body double, the film saw a limited release in 1983, garnering mixed reviews and dismal box-office returns.

Brandon Lee, The Crow
During the 1993 shoot for The Crow — a supernatural thriller based on a comic book about a musician who returns from the grave to avenge his death — film star Brandon Lee, son of action hero Bruce Lee, was accidentally shot on set. An investigation revealed that a prop gun contained a partial bullet jammed in the barrel, which had been expelled when the trigger was pulled mid-scene and fired into Lee’s chest. He was rushed to the hospital where he died later that night at the age of 28. After Lee’s death, Miramax studio offered to pay additional money for rewrites in order to complete the film. The Crow opened in theaters on May 14, 1993 to critical raves. The film hit number one at the box-office, inspired a sequel and garnered something of a cult following.

River Phoenix, Dark Blood 
At the time of his death from a drug overdose at in 1993, River Phoenix, then 23, had nearly completed filming scenes for Dark Blood with Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. Unfortunately, the film was still missing several key scenes that Phoenix, the film’s star, had yet to finish shooting. Filming on the movies was abandoned but director George Sluizer, kept the completed footage. After nearly 20 years, he re-edited the material and added voiceovers to bridge any remaining gaps.  However, when rumors spread in 2011 that Phoenix’s brother Joaquin would get involved with the project, the family released a statement distancing itself from the project, saying they would not “participate in any way.”  Sluizer went ahead and premiered Dark Blood at the Netherlands Film Festival on Sept. 27, 2012, despite the lack of support from Phoenix’s family.  It later appeared at a few international film festivals.

Heath Ledger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
During filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in January, 2008, star Heath Ledger died from a drug overdose in his New York City home at age 28. With only two-thirds of Ledger’s scenes completed, director Terry Gilliam initially thought that the project would be shelved, but then asked actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Ferrell to each take on filming scenes as dream-like versions of Ledger’s character in the fantastical movie. The movie was released in the U.S. on Dec. 25, 2009, and received generally positive reviews. However, the film was eclipsed by Ledger’s second-to-last performance as The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, for which the actor was awarded an Oscar posthumously.